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The Ancient Greek Siege Warfare

Although most of the Greek city-states, excluding Sparta, had fortifications from the earliest period, the siege warfare was a strangely absent affair in Ancient Greece for a prolonged period, as there is no reliable evidence of sieges occurring from 1100 – 490 BC.


Considering that the practice was extensively employed in neighboring regions, most notably by the Egyptians and the Persians, its absence in the Greek world is somewhat surprising. In reality, siege warfare was just incompatible with the Hellenic military traditions of the time, as well as with the socio-cultural mentality of the Hellenic city-states.

Historians argue that the strong correlation between democratic values and hoplite warfare, as developed in the archaic period, made the violent siege of another Greek city a very complicated and even shameful in the eyes of a Greek citizen-soldier.

However, with the coming of the Peloponnesian Wars and the general abandonment of the previous rules of warfare, siege warfare becomes a very efficient and popular method, reflecting the general lack of empathy that characterizes this conflict. Cities sought to protect their suburbs, re-supplying routes, and harbors.


Most notably, Athens constructed the Long Walls during the first stages of the conflict. Construction lasted from 462-450 BC, while the walls spanned 7km and stretched all the way from Athens to the city’s port, Piraeus. Despite an Athenian defeat in 457 BC, their completion ensured that Athens would never be left without supplies in the future, while it mostly became an island on the mainland, and no land force could conquer it. This construction informed the Athenian strategy of the 5th century, which focused on the naval dominance instead of land warfare, but also the general defensive mentality of the Classical period.

The existence of the Long Walls and the absence of regular naval or land battles between Athens and Sparta prolonged the war and gave rise to alternative methods such as guerilla tactics, raids, and scorched earth strategies. During the Peloponnesian War, a standard pattern was set in regards to the Long Walls; Spartans would send armies to raid the province of Attica to force the Athenian forces out of their city, while the Athenians stayed within their walls and dispatched their navy to raid towns around the Peloponnese. Both tactics were criticized by contemporary and later writers. This typical pattern was ultimately destructive for both city-states, especially for Athens.


Although they succeeded in avoiding the land battles against the Spartan army, the Spartan raids hit the Athenian economy hard, while the fact that the population was almost entirely within the city’s walls in numerous cases of Spartan offensive, resulted in disease outbreaks which decimated the population, particularly in 430 BC. Towards the end of the war and particularly after the Sicilian expedition Athenian Walls were the sole defense of the city-state that protected it from a total defeat. At the end of the war, Spartans had to invest in their navy as it was the only way to subdue any further Athenian resistance.

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